By Greg B. Macabenta
IF anyone were to tell a foreigner that the Philippines is a poor country and Filipinos can hardly afford three meals a day, he’d never believe it if he were to see the eating and drinking places in Manila. They are all full.
I love coming home to Manila. It gives me a chance to relive my Manileño days — from driving like a slalom competitor to engaging in this town’s favorite pastime: eating and drinking. And I hardly ever have to pull out my credit card. Pinoy hosts are the most galante, the most generous in the world.
But in all the rounds of eating and drinking, the conversation invariably revolves around the fact that life in the Philippines is truly hard (Another glass of wine, sir?). And food is so expensive (Pulutan pa. Bring out the lechon). And people are so poverty stricken (How about 18 holes tomorrow?). And most folks can’t afford the basic necessities (Take a look at my latest cellphone).
Across the creek from my house in Parañaque is a squatters’ haven named Creek Drive. I know most of the people who live in the shanties. They’ve been living there since my kids were small (and I’m now a grandfather of their children).
Between what one reads about the pitiful lives of the squatters and the sight of the drinking sessions throughout the week, and the all-night eating, dancing and singing during the annual fiesta, one can get totally confused.
If this is misery, what do they call happiness?
It’s only when you sit back and ponder the situation that you begin to make some sense out of the contradictions.
Eating and drinking are to Filipinos what drugs are to many Americans. A way of forgetting. A way of keeping a straight face and a stiff upper lip in the face of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, to paraphrase Hamlet.
Sitting around a table over several cases of beer or bottles of gin or tuba — whichever the funds can afford — and sharing a meal of sardines or chicken or tuyo, and singing and dancing as if there were no cares in the world is the Pinoy’s way of daring the fates to inflict their worst.
Because at the end of it all, he knows he will survive.
He survived the Spaniards, the Americans, the Japanese. He survived Marcos, Aquino, Ramos, Estrada, Arroyo and Aquino Number Two. He expects to survive Duterte.
The Pinoy doesn’t sulk or sink into the pit of depression. Instead, he eats and drinks while complaining about his miserable existence, managing to enjoy whatever he can of it.
The recent suicide of TV host Anthony Bourdain and that of comedian Robin Williams, a few years ago, left people wondering why those who had so much money and success would want to take their own lives — but they did, reportedly because they had no one to share their griefs with and no one who could help them fight their inner demons.
Could Bourdain and Williams still be alive if they had been successful personalities in the Philippines?
Years ago, in the San Francisco Bay Area, an aging Filipino security guard, despondent over a terminal illness, took the lives of three innocent people and then his own.
Could the tragedy have been averted if he had friends and relatives to run to?
There is every reason to believe so. In the Philippines, you seldom suffer alone. There will always be an ear to bend, a drinking buddy to pour your heartaches out to. There will always be a relative to provide support. A childhood friend to understand your frailties. A barkada to stand by you, right or wrong.
In contrast, in the Western world, one bears the pain alone. For the young, their parents are too busy working to ensure their future, they have little time to attend to the present. On the other hand, adult children are too busy with the rat race to spare some time for their aging parents. For many who are desperate to talk to someone, there is only the TV set in an empty room to bare one’s soul to.
My late mother refused to live in the US in the two instances that we brought her over. Her complaint was that she had no one to talk to. She would be all alone in the house in the daytime because everyone was at work or in school. And at night, we were either too tired or too engrossed with other things.
We finally allowed her to return home to San Miguel, Leyte where she could visit her friends and relatives whenever she wished and where she felt useful raising funds for the church.
In America, you can’t go out and have a barikan or a pa-morning-an any time you want to. It’s not easy rounding up friends or relatives. Work gets in the way of having a good time.
Sure, there are psychiatrists and psychologists, guidance counselors and social workers – but there’s nothing like sitting with friends and family, around a table over drinks and pulutan. There’s nothing like being able to complain how unbearable life is, how corrupt the politicians are, and how rapacious their cronies, and then insulting them aloud and offering a toast to better times.
My elder sister, a practicing surgeon and general medical practitioner, decided to shift to psychiatry when she immigrated to the US. Aside from the high cost of malpractice insurance, psychiatry allowed a more lucrative practice. “More people need a head shrinker here,” she jokingly explained.
For months now, political pundits have been predicting that the Philippines is headed for a revolution ostensibly because of poverty and the high cost of living. But that may not happen soon.
For the Pinoy, even the worst of times are as good a reason as any to eat, drink and be merry. And as long he can still do that, the revolution will have to wait.
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.